Every Move You Make: Schools Cross the Line with Anti-Cheating Tech

Last April, following a series of mass evictions at universities across the country, we observed that “the primary concern of bourgeois universities during this crisis lies in protecting their own legitimacy and financial well-being, at the expense of their students.” 

The experience of the last eight months has confirmed that statement. The initial outbreak of COVID-19 presented universities with a grim ultimatum: shut down and risk permanent closure (as has occurred at some small colleges), or find some way to stay open in spite of the pandemic. In the Fall 2020 semester, many schools reopened their campuses to disastrous effect, causing significant virus outbreaks on campuses and in college towns across the country. Many others opted to switch to online classes. 

Some schools have reduced their official tuition costs in response to plummeting enrollment. However, these schools already operate on a discount model which adjusts the real cost of tuition based on family finances, scholarships, and financial aid. In reality, these reductions just reflect more accurately the price most students were paying anyway. Typically it is only students from wealthy backgrounds who pay the full sticker price for tuition. These cuts are not made out of the goodwill of the administrations, nor are they concessions to the demands of protesting students. The tuition reductions are a carefully calculated business consideration that seeks to adjust the “price” of a “product” in response to plummeting demand on the “market”. Most colleges and universities in the US have refused to reduce tuition at all, however. The majority of schools have continued to prioritize executive salaries over pay for workers and adjuncts (who continue to suffer from layoffs). The decision of many universities to implement online instruction should be understood within this context: not as a benevolent endeavor, undertaken for the sake of students, but as another tool of survival for capitalist universities in crisis.  Though this approach is distinct from the path taken by schools that reopened in-person instruction, there are many ways in which online-oriented universities have displayed a similar disregard for the health (physical as well as mental) of their students. 

One glaring example rests in the question of how to manage tests and examinations. If students can no longer be monitored as in a classroom setting, colleges and universities must find alternative means to prevent cheating if they are to maintain their usual academic standards. If universities operated under the democratic control of the people, the health and wellbeing of students would be a top priority in considering this question. Under capitalism, it is a minor concern. During the recent campaign of mass layoffs, institutions like The New School displayed their propensity for delegating unsavory tasks to private firms. Universities across the country have applied a similar approach to “cheating,” contracting dozens of different tech companies selling an array of  “cheating-detection” software products. These incredibly invasive programs come in a variety of forms. Many prevent students from opening tabs apart from the exam on their computer. Others monitor students through video and audio while they take tests, “flagging” head or eye movements (as well as other factors, like the speed with which an exam is completed) to remotely determine whether or not a student might have displayed “suspicious” behavior. In classes that use these methods, students are often required to give “proctoring” companies access to their cameras and microphones, as well as put their rooms (and bodies) on display. If an unsuspecting family member happens to walk into the room – or if a student’s internet connection is interrupted for any reason – tests can be locked down. Students who are marked as potential cheaters can be subjected to a multitude of consequences, including fees, automatic failures, or accusations of cheating that can lead to severe penalties. Students have reported suffering from a variety of negative emotional and psychological consequences, ranging from increased stress, panic attacks, and even urinating during exams while being recorded because they were required to remain in front of the computer. 

Why go to such lengths to surveil and terrorize students in the name of academic integrity? This phenomenon can be explained by two important ideological features of the bourgeoisie. The first is their obsession with meritocracy. When the bourgeoisie was a progressive and revolutionary class it was compelled to wage a ruthless struggle against the hereditary privileges of the aristocracy in the name of a rationally organized society where positions of privilege and power are earned on the basis of one’s merits and abilities. However, soon after the bourgeoisie took power the institutions born of the “triumph of reason” proved to be nothing but bitterly disappointing caricatures. The cheating, corruption, and hereditary privileges of the aristocracy did not disappear but took on new bourgeois forms. The antagonism between the rich and the poor was not dissolved into a prosperous meritocracy but became intensified. These changes are still reflected in our education system today where test scores and grades are less an indicator of one’s innate ability than of their class backgrounds and the resources at their disposal. 

The second feature of bourgeois society that explains these abusive practices is the bourgeoisie’s desire to impose its despotism over all of its agents of production and administer a successful code of industrial discipline to students as they train to enter the workforce. Today, students work under the watchful eye of anti-cheating software in preparation for the day when they will work under the anxious eye of the capitalist.

We are not arguing that students should be allowed to cheat, but that the resources spent on surveilling and terrorizing students would be better spent on addressing the reasons students might cheat in the first place; for example, on offering remedial courses and tutoring for students who were not adequately prepared for the difficulty of their courses by their primary school education.

There exists no reliable data to suggest that this kind of software actually reduces cheating in any meaningful way – but of course, that isn’t the point. By implementing these measures, schools can quickly address the question of cheating, declare it a “problem solved,” and continue to function, so they are still able to charge tuition in order to stay afloat. The extent to which students suffer as a result has little bearing on the dispassionate financial calculation required by these institutions in order to maintain their very existence under capitalism. The beneficiaries comprise a slew of opportunistic tech companies like Respondus, part of the growing “EdTech” sector that has made millions in recent years, and continues to profit off of the pandemic. The multi-million-dollar contracts taken up between these companies and universities only account for a portion of the benefits they withdraw, however. Massive amounts of sensitive information (ranging from invasive recordings of students to the essays they write) are stowed away, in some cases explicitly for later usage. In New York City,  CUNY’s board of trustees recently voted unanimously to renew a $2 million contract with a company called Turnitin, which compiles thousands of student-written essays in a huge database so that newly written papers can be checked for plagiarism. Students don’t have the option to keep their work from being effectively sold, just as they aren’t offered the chance to opt-out from compromising their privacy in order to meet the requirements set by various surveillance-oriented software companies.

These measures serve as yet another demonstration of the inflexibility of capitalist institutions in the current crisis. As we observed in a recent article, there is no perfect reopening for universities under capitalism. When the pandemic broke out, universities did not have the option to close down until COVID-19 was handled. In order to continue running at all, they were still required to produce as much revenue as possible, which necessitated reopening, whether in person or online. The financial crisis faced by universities in recent years has only increased during the pandemic, and the ever-expanding dependence of universities on finance capital (in the form of endowments) has provided little cushion for most schools. Therefore, some of the more severe manifestations of the crisis in higher education (including “anti-cheating” measures as well as the mass layoffs which preceded them) are not the result of individual institutions engaging in unusual cruelty. Rather, they are the inevitable result of a system in crisis. 

During the pandemic, students have been forced to witness the fundamental nature of their real relationship with bourgeois universities, stripped of all the niceties afforded in times of relative prosperity. Higher education fulfills essential social roles under capitalism, both in reproducing the division of mental and manual labor and in reinforcing the ideology of the ruling class. In addition, education has become increasingly commodified since the 1980s The resulting “educational” process is really a series of financial transactions. Millions of students now attend hours of daily online classes, painfully aware that the quality of the instruction they are currently receiving has little to do with the cost of tuition, which has in many cases remained the same (or has increased) in spite of the drastic decline in perceived quality. In STEM, law, and other academic fields requiring strict standards in order to pass, “anti-cheating” practices subject students to conditions that would be considered brutal under normal circumstances. When confronted with the conditions of the pandemic, colleges and universities are willing to accept such conditions for students, so long as they can continue to fulfill their essential functions and generate as much revenue as possible. 

At present, students in this country lack the proper organization—our chief weapon in the fight against the capitalist class—required to wage struggles against these invasive and inhumane measures. Resistance has been piecemeal, scattered, and generally ineffective, mostly in the form of social media “campaigns” and petitions. The aforementioned board motion to renew the contract with Turnitin at CUNY is a clear example, where a carefully-worded petition signed by over a thousand CUNY students, staff, and faculty was raised to no avail, accompanied by a ceremonial abstention by the student senate representatives on the board during the vote. Organization is absolutely necessary not only to mount real resistance to attacks on students and working people, but also in order to transform these individual struggles against symptoms of capitalism into a political struggle against the illness itself.

While the bourgeoisie rules society, every reform won in even the most militant struggle can be snatched away again. Revolutionary students must therefore not limit themselves to the struggle for reforms or treat reforms as ends in themselves. Instead, we must “on the basis of reforms which improve the lives and immediate conditions of working people…wage a resolute struggle that aims for nothing less than the complete destruction of the domination of the capitalists and their political servants.” We must unite with the working class in the struggle for socialism, to construct a university that truly serves the people.